In this article I set out to answer a reader question we've had come in consistently from our readers and subscribers; Is it more difficult than ever to make money out of music production?
Many will tell you that it’s nigh on impossible. There are no shortage of producers who complain about how little they earn in royalties, and how the internet has taken the meat off the bone for the creatives themselves.
But is this fair?
If you measure the success of music production in terms of sales and royalties, then yes - it is fair to a point. But as we will discuss, there is more to it than this. The precise ‘value’ of a piece of music is hard to define, and it always has been.
Let’s just go back to the “good old days” – the days where the first stars of electronic music were born in the nightclubs of Chicago, New York and Detroit, and vinyl was the only medium in town. The price of music was higher than it is now and your average release sold a lot more units than they do now. So the artists made more money, right?
Well it figures that the sale of 4,000 vinyl at $15 each should be more fruitful for the artist than selling 200 downloads at $3 each. But don’t be fooled – there was never this utopian era where a living came easily to the artists. Only a small amount of the sale price ever went to the artist, and often they got nothing at all.
The artists were at the mercy of labels and distribution plants, many of whom were at best, incompetent, and at worst, unashamed thieves. Just type the name “Larry Sherman” into google to find out more about the wild-west nature of Chicago’s main record distributor. Stories abound of bootlegged vinyl being repressed by using old shoes, and artists never being told by their labels that they were selling hundreds of thousands of records in Europe.
But even in spite of the madness, it was possible to have a full-time living just off the back of record sales – more ‘possible’ than it is today. The volume of sales was such that if you were lucky, you could get by. But it’s important to stress that this was the select few, and that even back then, the ‘real’ money was in the DJing, rather like it is now. The biggest names from the 1980s house/techno scene have been sustained by their DJing, not by their record sales.
It is true that as far as the overall career plan goes, there is now a greater emphasis than ever on the DJing/performing. Most music for sale on Beatport is basically a calling card for the artist, rather than a direct money earner. The majority of releases up in cyberspace will not pay the artist a cent, simply because they don’t sell enough to cover the costs of releasing the music.
It’s a cruel irony that many artists only earn good money from their productions after they’ve made it as a DJ, and that to get into that position, they had to churn out a high volume of music that barely paid them anything when they probably needed the money the most.
But don’t let anybody tell you that it’s Armageddon for the dance music biz. However much the production of music may have been devalued in a monetary sense, it is still possible to build a career around it.